One of the most challenging aspects of eating disorder recovery is that the eating disorder habits around eating, meals, exercise, body checking become very fixed and hard to break over a relatively short period of time.
Yet, research tells us that changing the eating disorder behaviours comes before thinking and emotional changes in terms of recovery. The brain needs to be nourished in order to repair and manage difficult feelings and think flexibly. It takes up to 20% of the energy we consume in a normal diet in order to function properly.
So addressing the unhealthy eating disorder habits comes first, but like any other habit you may have, like the order of how you get dressed or how you brush your teeth, it is hard to change habits. In fact, research tells us that it can take 18- 254 days (average 66) to form a new habit (Lally et al, 2009). It is important for eating disorder recovery and safety to act sooner rather than later, so having a plan and strategy is really important.
Tips for developing healthy eating habits
- Keep it simple: Focus on just a few key behaviours to become habits at a time and give them time to before adding more. We usually recommend people focus on re-establishing a 3 meal and 2-3 snack routine first, before moving to trying other recovery goals. What would make the biggest difference to you?
- Pair it: It is helpful to pair a new behaviour with a habit you love and do automatically already. For example, if you are finding it hard to have your evening snack, pair it each night with that sitcom or soap opera that you love and never miss watching on Television. The brains reward pathways will be activated and make the new habit easier.
- Plan ahead: At brain level, all habits are associated with well laid down neuronal pathways in which through repetition have become automatic responses. While trying to change from unhealthy ways of eating to healthy eating habits that will help you recovery, it is easy to slip back when the unexpected happens. It is useful to spend 10 minutes or so at the start of each week to think about what may go wrong and plan for it. Have a plan B if plan A doesn’t work out e.g. a couple of snacks to go with for different circumstances.